Help Arrives to Indonesia's Earthquake Zone

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Bay Ismoyo / AFP / Getty

Rescue teams look for victims in a collapsed hotel in earthquake-devastated Pariaman, Indonesia.

The thickly furred dog, panting in the tropical heat of Indonesia's Sumatra island, was confused. The retriever had picked up the scent of a human in the wreckage of a local college in the city of Padang, which was struck by an earthquake two days before, killing at least 515 people, according to local disaster management officials, with some 4000 more believed to still be buried. But the canine, which had arrived by chartered jet from Switzerland just hours before, hesitated. She licked the air and waved her muzzle back and forth. Something about the smell wasn't right. "Our dogs go through at least two years of training, but they only know how to find live people because we can't use corpses in training," explains Linda Hornisbesger, a vet and head of a canine search team for Swiss Rescue, which arrived in Padang on Oct. 2 with 115 people, 18 dogs and an ample supply of kibble and Scooby snacks. "So when the dogs are in the field and smell a person who's dead, they feel very upset and don't know what to do."

Two days after the deadly quake struck Indonesia, the first wave of international rescue teams trickled into Padang, lending their expertise to the unfolding search effort. The first 72 hours after a disaster are critical because it's rare to find survivors after that point, and so Swiss Rescue, dressed in their signature orange jumpsuits, fanned out across town shortly after they landed. By the end of their first foray, the Swiss dogs had located five bodies at the STA Prayoga college and another corpse at the upscale Ambacang Hotel. No survivors were found. But Michele Mercier of Swiss Rescue says the team will stay for several days. In previous missions in places like Turkey and Algeria, Swiss Rescue dogs have nosed out living people as long as six or seven days after a natural disaster. "It's rare, but miracles like that are what keep you going," says Mercier.

On Saturday, the dogs were heading to Pariaman, a remote area close to the epicenter of the 7.6 magnitude tremor, joining search- and-rescue squads from South Korea, Singapore, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. The day before, Pariaman regency's secretary Yuen Karnova received a call late at night informing him that foreign experts had arrived, and he rejoiced, "God bless, help is coming." The chance of finding survivors in the landslides triggered by the quake in that region will be very slim. Still, the Swiss team prepares the dogs for the journey to Pariaman by dunking the dogs in some water to cool them off before they begin their hard work. For long-haired golden retrievers, border collies and other breeds, the torrid Sumatran air is far tougher to endure than the flight over from Switzerland.

Amused Padang residents watch as orange-jumpsuited foreigners gently pour water over the dogs in a makeshift tub, whispering endearments at the animals. Hornisbesger says that when she worked in Turkey, some people threw stones at the dogs because they are considered unclean and unwelcome beasts by some Muslims. (Islamic tradition does not generally embrace keeping dogs as pets.) But she has been impressed by how welcoming Indonesians, living in a Muslim majority nation, have been of the Swiss menagerie. "Everyone has been very friendly and tolerant," she says. "I think they realize that these dogs may be the ones that might save people they know."

Other canine units are also on the scene. On Saturday, at the Ambacang Hotel, where dozens are believed to still be trapped in the massive wreckage, a pair of Japanese dogs — Eros, a German shepherd, and Akane, a Golden retriever — begin sniffing through the mountains of rubble from the once-graceful colonial-style historic building. The dogs were each trained for five years for such missions, but this is their first time in the field overseas. "Sometimes when you are doing the training, you forget that it's for something real, says Hidehiro Murase, the president of the Rescue Dog Trainers' Association of Japan, who had flown in with the animals on the night of Oct. 2. "And then you come to a place like this, and realize it's a very real situation." Suddenly, Eros sniffs intently and turns inquiringly toward Murase. His trainer rushes forward. This time, it turns out to be nothing. But Eros continues to breathe in the dusty, putrid air, searching for a scent to please his master, just as he was trained all these years to do.